Virginia marijuana reform: Outlook for 2020

By Don Rippert

Cannabis certitude. The seemingly inexorable march toward legalized marijuana in the United States continues unabated. A poll of 9,900 American adults conducted by the Pew Research Center from September 3 – 15, 2019 found that 67% of the respondents thought cannabis should be legalized. That’s five percentage points higher than Pew’s last poll on the subject conducted in 2018. Many state legislatures are acting on behalf of their constituents. Legal weed sales began last Sunday in Michigan and will commence on New Year’s Day in Illinois. At the federal level the House Judiciary Committee approved a bill legalizing marijuana at the federal level. As of today 33 states have legalized medical marijuana and 11 states have approved the sale of recreational marijuana to adults. Six more states seem very likely to make decisions on legalizing recreational marijuana in 2020 – Arizona, Arkansas, Florida, Missouri, New Jersey and South Dakota. As legal marijuana becomes big business pundits are predicting the future of legal weed. Arcview Market Research and BDS Analytics believe that medical marijuana will be legalized in every state by 2024 and recreational marijuana will be legal in 20 states by that date. Virginia is not among the 20.

Weed in the Old Ancient Pre-historic Dominion. Virginia is one of 15 states where marijuana is fully illegal. (Note: I do not count CBD oil sales as partial legalization). The first step on the long road to legalization is usually decriminalization. In 2018 Virginia’s General Assembly considered a bill to decriminalize possession of small amounts of marijuana. It was killed along a purely party line vote in the Senate Courts of Justice Committee.  In 2019 another decriminalization bill was considered. Virginia’s Republican leadership in the General Assembly couldn’t muster the minimal courage to take the 2019 bill to the full committee and killed it in sub-committee. Later that year the Republicans got their heads handed to them in the General Assembly election. What a surprise.  Now Democrats hold a trifecta in Virginia with control of the House, Senate and Governorship.  Once again, Sen. Adam Ebbin (D-Alexandria) is the patron for proposed legislation to decriminalize possession of small amounts of marijuana. However, this year unlike the past, Ebbin’s party is in control.

The gathering storm – federal edition. As Virginia remains in its usual political state – entombed in amber – the rest of America marches on. National legalization has passed a sub-committee in the US House of Representatives. There is a strong likelihood that it will pass the whole house.  However, passage in the Senate is more problematic. Sen. Mitch McConnell (R-Kentucky) has been staunch in his opposition to legalizing marijuana. Employing a tactic well known to Virginia Republicans, McConnell won’t even allow the Senate to consider legalization bills. However, his recent meeting with cannabis industry executives and tour of a cannabis facility may indicate a thaw in his position. Regardless, passage of the “legalization” bill at the federal level would not make marijuana legal in Virginia. It would be legal at the federal level but each state would have to chart its own course. In other words, it would become a states’ rights issue.  Funny how the very Republicans who incessantly clamor for more and more states’ rights are the same politicians blocking this move to more states’ rights. Actually, it’s not funny. It’s the kind of two faced inconsistency that has Republicans losing power, prestige and elections across the country.

Standing on a sandbar as the tide rises, state edition. Virginia’s problems in remaining one of the few islands of prohibition don’t end with the feds. As more states decriminalize, legalize medical marijuana and legalize the recreational use of pot Virginia becomes surrounded. West Virginia has already passed laws legalizing medical marijuana. Yes, West Virginia is ahead of us.  Maryland has a robust medical marijuana program and has decriminalized possession. North Carolina decriminalized possession of small amounts of marijuana in 1977. Yes, 1977. However, it’s Washington, DC that could be the biggest issue for Virginia’s ongoing status as an isolated prohibition state. DC’s laws are a bastardization of what the City Council passes and what Congress will allow. In the case of marijuana, DC residents are allowed to possess, grow, give away and use marijuana for recreational purposes. However, due to a rider in a federal spending bill there can be no legal sales of marijuana in DC. That may soon change  The strongest opponent to marijuana sales in DC is Maryland’s lone Republican Congressman, Andy Harris. The “Harris Rider” in federal appropriation bills has prevented DC from developing a retail marijuana industry. However, with the 2018 Democratic take over of the House of Representatives Harris has backed down. If this holds DC will be come the first jurisdiction bordering Virginia with a legal retail market for marijuana. More on that in a moment.

“He who lives lives by the crystal ball soon learns to eat ground glass,”Edgar R Fielder. Virginia will decriminalize possession of small amounts of marijuana in the 2020 General Assembly session.  However, there will be no legalization of either medical or recreational marijuana in that session.  The formation of a group to study legalization in Virginia is more likely than not.

The Rip wrap. If my predictions turn out to be true Virginia will be in a ridiculous muddle. Decriminalization is effectively legalization without a retail market. With a possession penalty lower than a typical parking ticket neither citizens nor police will pay much attention to the fact that marijuana possession is technically illegal. DC will establish retail markets putting legal purchases within easy reach of 35% of Virginians. On the positive side, marijuana arrests will decline (to near zero) which will reduce enforcement and incarceration costs.  On the negative side (according to some) marijuana use will increase. DC and various Mexican drug cartels will reap the majority of the economic benefit from Virginia’s increased consumption of marijuana. Worse, the lack of medical marijuana will prevent those suffering from various diseases getting doctor prescribed treatments they could get in 33 other states. It will also retard the development of a grow / dispensary ecosystem in Virginia. When the inevitable legalization occurs Virginia will, once again, find itself a day late and a dollar short on being able to capitalize on this completely foreseeable outcome. If this sounds familiar … it should. It was this same ossification of the General Assembly that let Charlotte (instead of Richmond) become America’s second largest banking center. The valley of death is full of the bones of those who hesitated at the moment of victory.